brain scans

Running Lots Connects Your Brain Regions

Photo: Ryan Edy/Getty Images

Researchers are finding all sorts of benefits to running, beyond cardio: It clears your mind, helps alleviate depression, teaches you to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. A new brain-imaging study suggests that it wires your brain in smart ways, too.

As noted by Gretchen Reynolds at the New York Times, University of Arizona scientists recruited 11 competitive runners and 11 dudes who said they hadn’t exercised in the past year, then had them go into brain scanners for a new paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The runners were better connected between the areas of the brain associated with decision-making, taking in sensory information, and working memory, or the ability to hold multiple objects of thought in mind. There were fewer indications of mind wandering, and more of higher-order thinking. Because of the nature of the study, it can’t say for certain that running is what made these effects, but one may infer so.

To co-author Gene Alexander, the results indicate that running is more cognitively demanding than often assumed. “It requires complex navigational skills,” the psychologist and brain imaging specialist tells the Times, “plus an ability to plan, monitor and respond to the environment, juggle memories of past runs and current conditions, and also continue with all of the sequential motor activities of running, which are, themselves, very complicated.”

What Alexander describes sounds a lot like the process of “integration” that Dan Siegel, psychiatrist and author of Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human, says is so essential to human flourishing. To Siegel, one of the central projects of a well-lived life is to cultivate different parts of your brain (and your self) and tie them together. While this study is tiny — 22 subjects does not a robust finding make — it does suggest that running helps you grow, not just physically, but mentally. Step by step.

Running Lots Connects Your Brain Regions